In connection with the publication of
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Approaches to a Science of Life,
I enjoyed these exchanges with Phil's "Friend Carol".
Dag to Carol, 10 Sep 2010
Christine and I are now back from our vacation. You should have received “Dialogue” just over 7 weeks ago. In my letter on the very first page of the book, I said:
Please let me have your comments as you see fit—on this volume in general, the letters, the science, Bill Powers, Phil Runkel, the problems you face and what this information means to you suitable for inclusion up front among “Comments on this volume”.
If you want to contribute your assessment for my consideration, now is the time. I will finalize the book by September 20. The next step will be to send “galley proofs” to the media.
Carol to Dag, 15 Sep 2010
I hope that your vacation with Christine was thoroughly enjoyable and that you have returned refreshed and ready to pick up work on “Dialogue.”
Let me begin by saying again that it was a great pleasure for me to relive conversations with Phil about Powers’ work and other topics of shared interest.
My first years in philosophy now seem very far away and I find myself even more grateful now than I was then for Phil’s unflagging patience with my enthusiastic harangues. The poet John Fuller wrote a one line elegy for a friend: “Who can I show this to?” Not having Phil to show things to has been a great loss.
I’m not sure I can contribute anything useful to the content of the forthcoming volume but a few “backstage” comments might be worth sharing. I have noticed that reviews of published letters almost always mention the extent to which their editors have provided information about what might otherwise be obscure references in the correspondence—just what you were doing when you asked about Sudnow’s book—as well as offering information about letter writers themselves. My impression is that what you have assembled might well serve as a significant resource in the history of psychology, perhaps to projects along the lines of, for example, Laurence Smith’s “Behaviorism and Logical Positivism” (1986 Stanford U. Press), in which private correspondence played a central role in challenging the accepted account of American behaviorism’s indebtedness to logical empiricism.
The sort of primary source material you have assembled could be invaluable to someone interested in chronicling the disintegration of the regnant behaviorist paradigm and the appearance (and fates) of various alternative theoretical frameworks. If this seems a possible target audience, you might want to consider adding not only a detailed index but rather more information about who Phil was—about his “Casting Nets and Testing Specimens,” and his doctoral dissertation under Clyde Coombs, which was certainly cognitive psychology avant la lettre. (Phil’s background in engineering also seems relevant to his interest in Powers’ work.) I say this, of course, without knowing what you really do have in mind by way of potential readership. (This itself is something you might want to address in the introductory material—publishers and reviewers tend to be interested in the intended audience of a book.)
Whatever you decide, please do know how much I have appreciated being included in the first round of your readers. I wish you well in the next stages of your undertaking. Giving people a glimpse of the inner workings of a scientific community is a cause close to my heart.
Dag to Carol, 15 Sep 2010
I want this book to reach a very wide audience.
I am struggling to come up with a more curiosity-arousing subtitle with a small group. I picked a Galileo title to indicate the earth-shaking nature.
Personally, I do not care about psychologists in general because they have proven deaf and blind to a real explanation. So I am not worried about academic practice for the book itself. I think it is bad news that people skip techie subjects in school—they learn to think in terms of magic and word pictures. When you present them with a real explanation, it won’t stick.
There is a vast audience of people who are concerned and who can understand an explanation. Engineers who have become managers, for instance.
I appreciate your other comments but do not think I will do much extra right now. I will post video from Phil as I update my website.
Many thanks, Dag
Carol to Dag, 16 Sep 2010
I think you are absolutely right in your judgment that members of mainstream psychological communities, working as they are within established conceptual frameworks, are not likely to read or to be influenced by “Dialogue.” I’m sorry if it sounded as though I might be recommending (or even considering) them as an audience. What I had in mind was, rather, people who think and write *about* the doing of psychology—historians and sociologists of science and technology who are observers and analysts of psychological communities rather than card carrying members. (Needless to say, these folk have their own professional perspectives, but they will belong to a different domain.) The University of Pittsburgh, for example, has a well established program in history of science and the University of Edinburgh is home base for a program in science and technology studies. History of science folk periodically meet jointly with the Philosophy of Science Association, another group of people, some of whom comment on the doings of psychologists. I’m not sure whether 4S—the Society for the Social Study of Science—is still around but they too have looked at the doings of scientific communities, often offering strongly revisionist accounts of their practice. I do think it possible that some people in these areas might be very interested in the material presented in “Dialogue.”
Would engineers and managers be a potential audience? An interesting question. It is surely promising that Phil worked effectively with managers, although I’m not sure that was utilizing or teaching Powers’ framework. The last time I looked, Abraham Maslow’s (thoroughly unscientific) “hierarchy of needs” was still being taught to would-be managers in industrial psychology courses—if this is still the case, it is not a good sign. How about engineers? I’m not sure that a collection of letters is, as such, likely to appeal to this community, at least not if my father and his friends were typical of the field. But it might be interesting to try the water sometime by submitting a paper to a conference or publication aimed at engineers.
If you have a chance, I think you would find Phil’s dissertation well worth reading. (I treasure my copy.) He went out in the field and compared the “fit” between the way public school teachers sized things up and the way their students did so. He was not interested in whether teachers and students agreed in their judgments (preferences, opinions) but, rather, in whether they used the same dimensions to *make* their judgments. (E.g.: I may prefer my soup to be very salty, you may prefer a minimum of salt, but if degree-of-saltiness is important to both of us when we evaluate soups, then we are what Phil would call ‘colinear’ even though we disagree on which soup is the nicest. On the other hand, even if we happen to agree on which is the nicest soup, if we do not use the same a dimension on which to evaluate it—I choose this soup best because it is the saltiest on offer, you choose it because it has the creamiest texture—even though we agree in judgment we are not colinear!
What Phil found was that communication between students and teachers was better (as measured by students’ performance) when they were colinear with their teachers, while agreement, by contrast, did not predict to performance. Phil used George Kelly’s triad technique to gather the data and his own computer program (this in the days when we were using IBM punch cards) to analyze it. Kelly was also a cognitive psychologist before there was any such thing. At the very least, what Phil’s dissertation shows us is that even in graduate school, he was ready to step outside the box in framing his research and willing to use prediction in real life situations as his standard.
You will, I am sure, be receiving suggestions from a wide range of sympathetic readers. No doubt my own interest in history and philosophy of science inclines me to think of these communities as potential users of the material you have so carefully collected. I cannot help but think that somewhere there is a doctoral candidate in one of these fields who would wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to look at a relatively unremarked attempt to bring about a scientific revolution. I would like to think that as a sophisticated insider you might enjoy working with such a researcher and that one result might be wider dissemination and greater understanding of Powers’ work.
Dag to Carol, 20 Sep 2010
The book keeps improving. Per Dick Robertson’s suggestion, the title has been updated. I am getting quite enough endorsements. All posted.
I think it a good idea to post the thesis at my site as part of Phil’s heritage.
Carol to Dag, 30 Oct 2010
Thank you for your generosity in sending me the revised volume of “Dialogue.” It is good to be able to hear Phil’s voice across the years, to revisit the pleasure of conversations with him and to eavesdrop on his correspondence with Bill Powers, whose feisty personality also comes through loud and clear in the volume. If you think Phil’s doctoral dissertation could be relevant, let me suggest contacting University of Michigan Microfilms, who are in the business of archiving such material. The one time I needed to consult a full copy of a not very recent dissertation, I had no trouble obtaining it from the author’s university.
I am, again, impressed with what a great resource you are providing for researchers interested in the history of psychology in this country or perhaps in intellectual history more broadly construed. I was particularly struck this time around by the connections with Korzybski’s work—not just the letter of recommendation at the beginning, but the repeated criticisms of confusion between words and things and attribution without exception of properties to members of a category. I wonder: is there still an organization devoted to the promulgation and application of what became known as general semantics? Would members of such an organization be a potential audience for your work? I was also reminded that Korzybski’s difficult original work was interpreted for a wider public by Hayakawa in his popular “Language in Action.” (The last time I looked, our library was still taking Etc.) Is there anybody around who might be willing/able to play a similar role for control theory? Powers insisted that there was nothing essentially arcane about it and as you note in the introduction, it is obviously intended to be used by a wide range of practitioners.
Again, many thanks for keeping me in the loop. I shall continue to watch with interest.
Dag to Carol, 1 June 2011
On May 25 I sent you a broadcast mail that read in part:
Phil's "Friend Carol" provided some background and suggested that I make Phil's doctoral thesis available. Also, I have pulled together a thread that came about because Phil notified a very old friend of the publication of "Living Things". For all this, see http://www.livingcontrolsystems.com/authors/about_runkel.html.
Please scroll to the bottom where you will find a link to our conversation and Phil's thesis. Also a story about Phil.
OK with you?
Carol to Dag, 8 June 2011
What a wonderful story!!! Thank you so much for letting me know about it. You know, in all the time I knew him, Phil never so much as mentioned that the school he had been working in was for black students nor did he ever talk about the racist policies of the administration in the Canal Zone. Given the political tenor of the Program in Social Psychology, he could easily have gained admiration and respect for the way he acted in that position—recall that at that time social psychologists worked on eliminating racism—but he never took advantage of his credentials in that regard.
He had finished his graduate work and left Ann Arbor before there were any civil rights demonstrations there: I remember pushing our baby son in a stroller around the local Woolworth store in a protest/boycott against the policy of segregation in their southern stores. That would have been in 1960. Phil and Margaret were long gone by then. Phil and Margaret were extraordinary people. I learned more from them than from any of the faculty. I am so glad you let me know how they came to the University of Michigan. I am greatly in your debt for the gift.
Carol Slater is Professor emeritus of Psychology at Alma College, Alma, Michigan